One Player or Two?

Photo by  Davor Denkovski  on  Unsplash

It was here. Fifteen minutes ago, it was here on the desk, next to the controller, beside the N.E.S. There was only the one and he’s sure it isn’t one of the coins in his hand because all he sees there is silver. No gold.

But wait, he thinks, pennies aren’t gold. Even freshly minted, they aren’t. They’re copper, right? Copper.

Where is it? He checks under the rug again, inside his shoes one more time.

If the clerk at the Mickey Dee’s was reasonable, it wouldn’t matter. But the girl who works the Sunday night shift is a meth head, complete with missing teeth and runny nostrils and delusions of grandeur. For her, a penny is a penny is a penny.

On screen, the game he set up to simulate while he was gone is finished. He thinks to pause his quest, find the notebook, and take down the stats, but his stomach roars its disapproval and he keeps on keeping on.

Someone knocks at the door, one of his housemates, probably the ski bum who’s offered him the ride, but maybe the ski bum’s pigtailed girlfriend instead. It doesn’t matter. He doesn’t know either of their names, doesn’t know the name of anyone in the house, and how can he ask for a penny without at least being able to ask them by name? “Hey You, could you give me a loan?” No, that won’t fly. It has to be “Hey, Kurt” or “Yo, Tori” or else nothing at all.

“You almost ready?” It’s the girl. Liz? Kim? Courtney?

“Almost,” he says. “Just scrounging up some change.”

“We can loan you some money, Evan.”

Evan. Great. She knows his name. And what was that, the bit about scrounging up change? That was as good as asking, wasn’t it? What would Dad think? asks the meanest of the voices in his head.

Dad’s dead, he whispers to himself.

“What?” asks the girl on the other side of the door.

As they ride in Victor’s car—Victor, the ski bum is called Victor—Tammy, the girl, asks him what’s the deal with the video game.

“It’s baseball,” she says. “I get that. But what are you writing down in the notebook?”

“Stats,” says Evan.

“The game doesn’t do that for you?” says Tammy.

“Not really,” he says. “Not in any meaningful way.”

In the driver’s seat, Victor chuckles. He makes the turn into the McDonald’s parking lot.

“What’s funny?” says Tammy.

Victor holds up a hand and shakes his head, staying silent.

It was Dad’s thing, the stats. A long time ago, when they first got the game, they actually played it, actually sat down on opposite ends of the green and brown couch, controllers in hand, and took each other on. Dad mastered the pitching mechanic, Evan was unmatched in the virtual batter’s box, and Mom, when she played, had a knack for the outfield that brought deep ball players to their knees. They had a blast. But once Dad found the “season” mode and realized you could simulate games in about a quarter of the time it took to play them, he got it into his head that he was going to see how things played out over the careers of their pixelated players, over the lifetimes of franchises not named for their real life counterparts, so as to avoid lawsuits from a league that hadn’t quite figured out what to do with video games yet. He brought the original Nintendo to his office and bought a new Super Nintendo for Evan and Mom to play with in the living room.

“We all getting the same thing?” asks Victor, braking just shy of the Drive Thru.

“One patty melt,” says Evan, handing his change up front.

Victor tosses the change into one of his cup holders, where it mingles with the quarters he keeps there for the tolls he pays to go home on weekends—he lives in Vermont; that much, Evan does remember. Victor holds out his hand to Tammy. From her purse, she produces a crisp twenty, depositing it into his palm.

Victor pulls forward, then orders.

The patty melt is a thin slice of hamburger, covered in Cheese Whiz and diced onions, on a soggy rye bun. There is nothing appetizing about it, and Tammy and Victor are saying as much. They can’t understand why Evan was so anxious to get one.

“Because they’re only here for a limited time,” says Evan, parroting the commercial he hears five times an afternoon while tucked away in his dorm room between the end of classes and the start of dinner. “You never know when they might be gone for good.”

“Not a minute too soon,” says Victor, dabbing at his lips with the wrapper, then tossing it out the window.

“Victor!” says Tammy, slapping at his arm.

“I couldn’t stand the smell,” he says. “You should get rid of yours, too.”

“I will,” she says, “in a trash can, when we get home.”

Victor adjusts his rear view, as if to look Evan in the eye by way of the mirror. “Is this another of those family traditions?” he asks. “Did you and your father go out for shitty fast food every Sunday?”

Tammy hits him again, this time with a closed fist instead of an open palm. She knows—they both know, apparently—how much Evan is missing his father.

“Only when there was something new on the menu,” says Evan. “Like, last year, when BK had their Italian chicken sandwich,” he says, though that was one he had more often with the girlfriend who worked at the Dunkin Donuts across the street, the sandwich it had felt weird to eat with Dad, because of the things he and the Dunks girl had done in the BK parking lot after eating, the parts of her he’d put in his mouth, the parts of him she’d put in hers.

“You must really miss him,” says Tammy, reaching back, opening her fist, and then taking Evan’s hand into her own.

They fuck once or twice, Evan and Tammy, just after she breaks up with Victor and just before she hooks up with the painter she will marry after school is through. It’s even fun, except for when she fakes her orgasms, which she seems to do for his benefit, maybe because she wants him to feel like some part of him isn’t broken, which she knows is a lie, which is why she fucks him in the first place: in the hopes that her lips will heal him, or her cunt, or maybe even just the look in her eyes as she looks up at him and sighs his name.

But he is broken, all of him. It is the fourth of October, a year since Dad’s brain seized up for the last time, like the game is seizing up now, and he is still balling his eyes out on a daily basis. Evan takes the cartridge out and blows into the end of it, trying to get the dust out, wiping at his leaky eyes as he does. Tomorrow is his birthday. Maybe he’ll buy a new game, assuming he can find a place that still sells them for this old junker, now that there’s not only the Super version to contend with, but the N64 as well. Maybe he’ll ask Tammy to come over again. After all, things with the painter can’t be that serious, not yet. And it is his birthday, after all.

He slips the cartridge back into the N.E.S., pushes it down and into place, and then hits the power button. They are back in business. He grabs the notebook. He blows his nose.

He and his mother celebrate at the Friendly’s up the road, just over the New Hampshire border. She orders a hamburger, plain, well-done—the only way she’ll eat it. He gets the patty melt, for comparison’s sake. It is good, delicious even, but he hates every bite. Just like Mom to take him some place that ruins a memory of Dad. She was going to leave him and she’s still pissed off that she never got the chance.

“How’s school?” Mom asks.

He says nothing, stabs a French fry into his pool of ketchup instead.

“Have a favorite class yet?”

Damn, he thinks. The fries are better, too.

“Met any girls?” she asks.

“One,” he says. “She slept with me because she felt sorry for me. I don’t think she feels sorry anymore. Or, well, maybe she is sorry still, just for different reasons now.”

His mother nods along, sprinkling her fries with salt. She has never enjoyed his candor, believes he has a disorder of some sort that keeps him from keeping his mouth shut when he should. She brought him to a doctor once, to have him tested, but his father swept in at the last minute and took him out for ice cream instead. Dad had black raspberry, Evan orange sherbet.

“What did you want to get for a present?” she asks, handing him the card he knows is filled with one hundred and eighty dollars in cash, ten bucks for every year of his life.

He shrugs, opens the card. He stuffs the wad of tens into his pocket without counting it, without really looking at it at all. “I was thinking of visiting Dad’s grave,” he says.

“No,” she says. “It’s your birthday. That is too morbid, even for you.”

He shrugs, soaks up the last of the ketchup with the last of his fries.

“There isn’t anything you want?”

He shakes his head. She drives him back to his dorm. When he gets out, she forgets to hug him. She doesn’t realize, it seems, until he’s almost at his door. Then she hurries herself across the grass, her heels sinking into the muddy lawn on every other step. He stands still while she wraps her arms around him, lets her do what she think needs to be done.

The cab from the college to his hometown costs him more than he’d imagined it would, but there is still plenty left over for the sandwiches and the ride back. When the thought strikes him that he could have asked Victor, he brushes it aside, telling himself that good old V is still mad about Evan and Tammy, even though he knows full well that Victor hasn’t thought about Tammy since they broke up and has, in fact, moved on to the Asian girl who lives upstairs, a computer exec’s daughter who loves buying him breakfast only slightly less than she seems to enjoy waking the whole goddamned house with her harpy’s wails at two in the morning.

Evan has the cabbie drop him in Drum Hill, at the Burger King. He buys a pair of Italian chicken sandwiches—they’re just back in season, while supplies last—and then he walks across town with them under his arm, to keep them warm.

It’s dusk when he gets there and there’s an old man by the supply shed, a ring of keys twirling around his index finger. Evan waves at him, then walks up the hill, toward the back of the cemetery.

He sets one of the sandwiches atop Dad’s grave, then cops a squat on the grass in front, opens the notebook, and begins to run down the numbers. He pauses for a bite now and then, but doesn’t really eat until he’s caught Dad up on the game.

“The cartridge is crapping out on me at least twice a day now,” he says. “I was thinking…”

But saying it, even to a hunk of granite, is harder than thinking it. Asking for permission, even when there’s no one left to grant it—

Evan cries. He tries to stopper the tears by dabbing at his eyes with the only thing he has, the sandwich wrapper, but all he manages to do is smear melted cheese and cooling tomato sauce across his cheeks.

“I was going to buy something new,” he tells his father’s tombstone. “But I had to ask you first. And now there’s nothing left, so it doesn’t matter anyway.”

Evan stands, runs away. He doesn’t answer when the man with the keys asks, “What’s that on your face?”

It isn’t until he’s back in his dorm room that he realizes he left the notebook behind. He empties his pockets onto his desk to see if there’s enough, but there’s barely enough to get across town, let alone across the state. And then, what about getting back?

He flips on the TV. Another season is complete, ready for him to document it. He slams his fist down on the game console and the TV screen goes black. The game’s load screen flickers back for a second, then blinks dark again. Flickers, then goes dark.

Evan hits the N.E.S. again and the flickering stops. From the console’s cartridge slot pops something small and copper. It lands on the desk, heads up, Mister Lincoln in profile.

“So that’s where you were,” says Evan, picking up the penny. “So, that’s where.”

He crosses his fingers as he hits the reset button, hopeful, ready to start over. The load screen comes up, stays constant. Evan does not reach for paper or a pencil. He reaches for the controller. Then, he plays.

Originally published in Commonthought 2013 and now available in the collection Out of the Woods